Red Light District


 1894

 

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So, what’s with the red lights of the Red Light District?

No one seems to really know, but there’s no shortage of theories. Maybe it was from red lights left in the windows as a sign of the activity to be found indoors. Or perhaps the railroad men of old, on their dinner break, would leave their red lanterns outside the door. Or maybe…

Oh, heck. No one knows. But at least we can pinpoint when the phrase, Red Light District makes its first appearance.

The FirstMention that I came up with is September 10, 1894 in The Sentinel newspaper from Milwaukee.

Usually, I would post the entire article. but this one turns out to be awfully repugnant and racist…about using bloodhounds to track down undesirables and, when needed, maim and kill them. So I’ll just go with a snippet.



There’s a clear reference there to the red light district, but not much context as to what it means. However, given the urban setting (St Louis) and the particular activity under discussion, they’re obviously not talking about the more gentile part of town.

A number of word-watchers have speculated that the term, red light district, had its origins in either New York City, or somewhere out in Texas. Maybe. But I found pre-1900 mentions of it all over the durn country, like this one from the Wheeling Register in West Virginia in 1896, reporting on an event in Louisville, Kentucky.


 


 

There’s a clear reference there to the red light district, but not much context as to what it means. However, given the urban setting (St Louis) and the particular activity under discussion, they’re obviously not talking about the more gentile part of town.

A number of word-watchers have speculated that the term, red light district, had its origins in either New York City, or somewhere out in Texas. Maybe. But I found pre-1900 mentions of it all over the durn country, like this one from the Wheeling Register in West Virginia in 1896, reporting on an event in Louisville, Kentucky.



Hmmm. Red Light Social Club. New Orleans. Canal Street. Could it be…?

Actually, there were a fair number of clubs with the name “Red Light” around the country (whose members sometimes referred to themselves as “The Red Lights”). Again, we don’t know why they called themselves such, but depending on the activities of the club, they could well have given rise to the Red Light Districts of the day. We may never know for sure.

The last thing I do as I write these web pages is to put in the code for the advertisements at the top of the page. Context-specific advertisements.

I wonder what Google, in its munificent wisdom, will send my way for this one?

 

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Our FirstMention research is carried out in many sources, including historical newspaper archives, online family history records, state archives, and old books.

 

Know of an earlier First Mention? Drop me a line at david@firstmention.com